Mammoths and mastodons make way for skiers in Snowmass

November 9, 2014
Skiers and snowboarders have replaced the assortment of prehistoric critters that once called Snowmass, Colo., home.

With snowflakes swirling and white-spackled slopes glistening, it’s not hard to imagine a few Ice Age mammoths trundling through this winter wonderland.

Hopefully they’d take care to dodge the folks on skis and snowboards who have replaced the assortment of prehistoric critters that once called Snowmass home.

That was a long time ago, of course.

Construction workers building a dam near Snowmass Village uncovered a mammoth tusk in 2010. Crews from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science zipped up to take a look and ultimately uncovered a treasure trove of fossils up to 150,000 years old. They nicknamed the excavation the "Snowmastadon Project," and before it was done they had found the bones of several mammoths, mastodons, a rare giant ground sloth, an ancient camel, beavers, otters, a giant bison and more.

As far as we know, none was wearing skis.

Since then Snowmass has rebranded its annual Chili Pepper & Brew Fest in June to the Snowmass Mammoth Fest and opened a small storefront exhibit in the village where you can touch a mastodon tooth, watch a video and ogle a half-sized wooden mammoth skeleton.

Mammoths or not, these days most folks still come to Snowmass to ski or play in the snow, and the Colorado resort has plenty of terrain on which to do that. It’s big — 3,362 acres big. It’s also within a short shuttle bus ride of three other resorts — Aspen, Aspen Highlands and newbie-friendly Buttermilk, which will once again host the Winter X Games on Jan. 22-25.

We stayed at Timberline Condo in Snowmass, where all we had to do was walk out the door and down the length of the building to the slopes, pop on our skis and whiz down to the nearest lift. From there, the mountain was ours.

Our favorite runs? The glades around Garrett Gulch, where we lost the crowds (which weren’t much to speak of anyway) and wove among nicely scattered pine trees and moguls. We also liked the runs around Sheer Bliss, and if you don’t mind a little extra exertion, you can ride to the top of Elk Camp lift, then hike up an extra 15 minutes with your skis slung over your shoulders to access another sweet run, Long Shot. Chances are the snow’ll be deeper and fluffier there because most folks don’t make the effort.

The real experts head to Burnt Mountain Glades, Hanging Valley and the Cirque, where they can tackle vertigo-inducing double black diamond runs, the toughest on the mountain. The beginners stick to the slopes around the Elk Camp and Alpine Springs lifts, and if you need even easier terrain, head to neighboring Buttermilk, where your lift ticket is also valid.

Snowmass doesn’t really have a town in the way that some ski resorts are repurposed old mining towns. Nobody comes to Snowmass for the nightlife, either. They head down the road to Aspen for that.

Families fit right in here, though, and so do people like me, who just want to ski as much as possible. And while there’s not a big town, there’s still Snowmass Mall, a 1970s era development with an array of restaurants, a smattering of bars, gear shops, a liquor store and a few gift shops. What more do you need?

In the Village we liked the Stew Pot, operating since 1972, where every day brings a new array of hearty soups and stews (try the beef cabernet stew over mashed potatoes). Head to Venga Venga for happy hour, where you can sit outside warming your toes by the fireplace and sip a margarita as you watch skiers cruise down the hill. For dinner, check out the amazing Bia Hoi (recommended by a shuttle bus driver) for Asian noodles served in a cool, industrial atmosphere with iron and reclaimed wood tables and communal dining.

Two resorts — the Westin Snowmass and the Wildwood Snowmass — have undergone recent renovations. In the case of the Wildwood, think 1960s ski lodge meets modern hipster cool. Austin would approve. The Westin hosts a kid-friendly singalong and s’mores twice a week.

During the day, families can drop off little ones at the Treehouse Kids Adventure Center for ski lessons and child care. Friday evenings, everyone heads up the mountain to Elk Camp for Ullr Nights, a celebration of the Norse god of snow. That means ice skating, sledding, snow biking and music. Party on.

Plus, there’s plenty of stuff for non-skiers to do here, too — snowshoeing, nature programs, snowmobile rides and free ice skating until 10 p.m. daily at the rodeo grounds (bring your own skates.)

And keep your eyes open.

No telling when another mammoth will show up.

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IF YOU GO

Single-day lift tickets at Snowmass cost $104 for adults and $70 for children ages 7 to 12 (discounts for multiple days and advance purchases) and are also good at Aspen, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk. For more information, go to www.aspensnowmass.com. The Ice Age Discovery Center is located at 54B Snowmass Village Mall; Bia Hoi is located at 3101 Carriage Way, 970-429-8796; Venga Venga Cantina and Tequila Bar is at 105 Daly Lane, 970-923-7777; and The Stew Pot is at 62 Elbert Lane, 970-923-2263.

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